I’m a guy in a box.

At least that's how I feel at work nowadays.

I’ve been a remote employee for over a decade. I go so far back that I introduced the original versions of Google Hangout and HipChat in a past organization to communicate with my distributed learning design team. I’ve delivered hundreds of webinars, online workshops and virtual keynotes. I even curate an online magazine for remote workers. I’m as ready for this “future of work” as anyone can be, and I’m immensely grateful to have the option to work from home during these challenging times.

Nevertheless, I’m a guy in a box. There are plenty of good things about being a guy in a box, of course. I can move the box around, taking my work from my office to my kitchen table without missing a beat. I manage my own schedule and can leave the box as needed. The box allows me to meet and interact with people all over the world without having to change out of my sweatpants. And I can upgrade the look of the box when I get bored with it. When you go from traveling 50% of the time to sitting in the same Batman chair 100% of your working hours (Figure 1), you gotta find ways to change things up (Figure 2).

Me in my home office, April 2020

Figure 1: Me in my home office, April 2020

Me in the same home office, October 2021

Figure 2: Me in the same home office, October 2021

Over the past two years, I got a solid webcam (Elgato Facecam), clamped lights to my standing desk (Elgato Ring Light and Key Light Air), added a podcast mic (Shure SM7B), and tweaked my background (with Mickey as prominent as ever). If only I could upgrade my face …

Now my professional universe is a better-lit, 1080p, 16:9 rectangle. Using a different meeting platform? It doesn’t matter. I spend my days bouncing between Zoom, Teams, Meet, and Webex. I’ve delivered conference sessions via Pathable, PathFactory, Attendify, Swapcard, Whova, Connect, and plenty more. I always feel like a guy in a box … except for that one time.

Enter the metaverse

There was one day late in 2021 when I didn’t feel like a guy in a box. A customer invited me to present on gamification during their internal L&D event. Assuming Karl Kapp must be busy that day, I gladly accepted. I’ve applied gamification strategies for years and have plenty of content on the topic. This would be another simple Zoom presentation … or so I thought. What I didn’t know when I accepted this invitation was that I would be facilitating in the (pause for effect) … METAVERSE … ERSE … ERSE … ERSE!

When I say “facilitating in the metaverse,” what image comes to mind? Does it look like this?

Horizons Workrooms by Meta

Figure 3: Horizons Workrooms by Meta

Or this …

Mesh for Microsoft Teams

Figure 4: Mesh for Microsoft Teams

Or maybe even this …

That time I defeated Ultron with the Avengers in Las Vegas alongside (left to right) Shawn Rosler, Sarah Mercier, and (oh, look who it is) Karl Kapp

Figure 5: That time I defeated Ultron with the Avengers in Las Vegas alongside (left to right) Shawn Rosler, Sarah Mercier, and (oh, look who it is) Karl Kapp

Turns out this metaverse looked a lot like the original Legend of Zelda video game

Example of the Gather platform

Figure 6: Example of the Gather platform

This online event introduced me to Gather, “a video chat platform designed to make virtual interactions more human.” Each attendee is represented by an avatar. Attendees navigate the digital conference space from an overhead perspective using keyboard arrows. When an avatar enters a session area, the speaker’s audio automatically turns on and their video/presentation appears on the attendee’s screen. The same thing happens when avatars approach one another in open spaces to enable 1:1 and group conversations.

Gather doesn’t require any software downloads or VR headsets. It doesn’t force you to exit reality to enter a virtual world. And I don’t work for them in any way, I promise! You simply open the event URL with your browser, design your avatar and start mingling with your digital peers (Figure 7).

My digital self in Gather

Figure 7: My digital self in Gather

I have to admit I thought the whole thing was pretty silly upon first glance. I wondered who would spend time pushing an avatar around a screen to find content when they could just click a Zoom link and get right to the point. I was so wrong!

The power of presence

The last time I spoke in front of a physical audience was at the Training Conference in Orlando, Florida in February 2020. I delivered two sessions: learning ecosystems and AI-enabled learning strategies. I’ve been a guy in a box for every event since. Given how long virtual activities have been a mainstay of my professional life, I’m always looking for better ways to engage online audiences. I require live chat for every session I do. I’ve used plenty of breakouts, polls, and Q&As. I’m an accomplished Kahoot host. I started using Mentimeter because it fosters more interaction than a typical PowerPoint. I also stopped using slides altogether in many sessions to make conversation the real focus. No matter the event, how many people attend or which platform I use, I still never feel like I’m THERE with other people.

Gather overcame this challenge because it provided a way for me to engage with individual participants. I wasn’t limited to speaking to the entire audience during just my allotted session time. I didn’t have to rely on my ability to keep up with chat while talking and navigating content. I didn’t have to suggest people email me and set up follow-up calls weeks later when they had questions they didn’t want to share with everyone. Participants (avatars) could just walk up to me after the session to chat 1:1—just as they would in real life. Hallway conversations are the biggest thing I miss about in-person events. In Gather, people approached me in the virtual halls for impromptu chats. Gather made me feel like I was PRESENT at an event for the first time in almost two years.

The platform even allowed me to bring one of my sillier presentation activities to the metaverse. Just before my session started, I asked everyone in the room to move their avatars against the wall we shared with the group next door. Then, I instructed everyone to hit CTRL + Z, which caused their avatars to dance. After 15 seconds, everyone got back in their seats, and I kicked off the session. What did dancing have to do with my topic? Nothing. But after we wrapped up, multiple people who chose to attend the session next door mentioned how curious they were about my presentation because they saw everyone in my room dancing. In real life, I do the same thing by asking participants to laugh unnecessarily loud so the people next door can hear us having a great time—but only if I know the speaker, of course. Turns out, avatar dancing is just as fun!

Finding value in the virtual

The metaverse is far from new. Remember Second Life? As technology advances, we continue to find new ways to connect. 2-D technology enabled the types of digital interactions with which we’re all familiar, including social apps like Twitter and Slack. 2.5D brings the digital and physical worlds together through augmented reality, including apps like Snapchat and Pokemon GO. 3-D technology offers total immersion through VR and 360-degree video.

Metaverse technology is already enabling some awesome digital experiences. Disney produces entire episodes of Star Wars television shows on a single soundstage thanks to The Volume, an immersive digital environment powered by Epic’s Unreal Engine. Students practice their x-ray skills in safe environments thanks to virtual radiography simulators. Firefighters engage in immersive training to improve their incident command skills without having to replicate dangerous situations in real life.

At the same time, the metaverse is super buzzy. Companies like Meta, Microsoft, and plenty more are making big bets that people will choose to live and work in digital worlds. No one really knows how big the metaverse will become, and “digital scarcity” is a pretty solid oxymoron. When it comes to the workplace, organizations must get past the hype, do their homework, and apply these tools to foster human connection in responsible, inclusive, common-sense ways.

Will I transition from being a guy in a box to a legless avatar in a 3-D conference room? I hope not. But my experience with Gather reminded me about the importance of presence in our increasingly disconnected workplaces. While I know technology will never stop evolving, I also believe the principles that make for engaging, impactful experiences are pretty consistent. Just ask Karl Kapp (again?!?!), who recently shared his Metaverse Learning Model.

If you’re interested in a practical conversation on metaverse expectations vs. realities, check out this episode of the Sway podcast with Kara Swisher and Jaron Lanier, aka “the godfather of virtual reality.”

Be well.